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Season four of Netflix’s “The Crown” opens with a lunchtime conversation at Buckingham Palace. Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”) sits at the end of a long table stacked with food and flower arrangements as she inquires about her eldest child: “No Charles?” she asks. The Queen is surrounded by other members of her family — husband Philip (Tobias Menzies, “Outlander”), sister Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter, “The King’s Speech”), daughter Anne (Erin Doherty, “Call the Midwife”) and in-law Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance, “Game of Thrones”) — but Charles (Josh O’Connor, “God’s Own Country”) is notably absent.
The group proceeds to gossip over the Prince’s personal life, reviewing a list of women whom he may hold in contention for marriage. It’s 1977, and the pressure for the heir apparent to find a bride is reaching a tipping point.
There was one woman photographed by the newspapers in a bathing costume, says the Queen, and another that Anne describes as a “heck of a horsewoman.” Then there is Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell, “Killing Eve”), who is already married but still mysteriously close to the Prince.
“Oh, he’s not still seeing her, surely,” the Queen says. “After all the lengths we went to,” referring to her concerted efforts to keep the Prince and her monarchy away from unwanted scandal.
“No, none of these,” says Lord Mountbatten, who was famously close with his nephew. The latest acquaintance is Sarah Spencer (Isobel Eadie), elder sister of a woman named Diana (Emma Corrin, “Misbehaviour”). The camera cuts to a car driving down a wooded countryside far outside of London — Charles is at the wheel, on his way to the Spencer estate. He’s on his way to meet Diana Spencer.
Much of the following nine episodes centers on the infamous story of this relationship — of the teenager who married Prince Charles in a crinkled masterpiece of a taffeta ballgown when she was only 19 and he was 31. Show creator Peter Morgan tells a complex narrative of two faulted individuals bound to a marriage that was broken from the start. The season follows Diana’s personal battle with bulimia and depression that is exacerbated by a lack of support from her new in-laws. On top of this, she faces explosions of jealousy from Charles whenever her presence takes too much attention away from him and battles with her own dejection as it becomes clear that the Prince’s relationship with Camilla never truly ended.
“Camilla is who I want!” Charles screams at Diana toward the end of the final episode. “That is where my loyalties lie,” he says. She looks at him blankly, heartbroken and unsurprised at the same time.
These conversations are of course dramaticized inferences of what really happened behind the scenes of this crumbling relationship, but Morgan contextualizes this fiction in the backdrop of history from the penultimate decade of the 20th century. Diana and Charles fight as Britain reckons with a growing resentment toward the monarchy while unemployment skyrockets under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. This is the formula that has worked so well for Morgan’s first three seasons of what is one of Netflix’s most successful shows to date. Characters based on the Royals we know as public figures combat intimate personal turmoil as they navigate the public struggles written about in our history textbooks. Up until now, no one seemed to be bothered about where the facts ended and the fiction began. But as the show’s setting quickly approaches present day, the tension between these two is hard to ignore.
Morgan’s depiction of the now-deceased Princess and the still-alive future King of England ignited a new wave of hatred for the faults of Prince Charles and his family. Critics have been quick to point to Morgan’s shortcomings in the show’s depiction of reality — that “The Crown” only shows one unfortunate side of Charles, that it fails to emphasize Diana’s role in the marriage’s failure and that it might destroy the efforts of Charles and his now-wife Camilla in the last quarter century to separate themselves from the hostility of the 1980s.
Perhaps this is true; the TikTok teens and Twitter trolls don’t seem too enthusiastic about forgiveness. One especially funny video started with a woman looking in the mirror as she melodramatically told Charles, “You better count your days!” The TikTok accrued 2.2 million views and was shared over 40 thousand times.
In response to these worries, the U.K. Government has now called for Netflix to add a disclaimer to the show’s opening credits reminding viewers that this is a work of fiction. The request implies that viewers who are too young to remember this history may incorrectly interpret Morgan’s screenwriting as an episode from the History Channel, taking Morgan’s singular interpretation to be gospel. I find this request rather comical, and perhaps demeaning. My age does not make me an idiot. I know “The Crown” is fiction — if anything I, along with my cohort of younger fans, enjoy using it as a springboard for deep dives on Wikipedia to learn about the true stories behind Netflix’s drama.
But to go even further, I would argue that most everything surrounding the Royal family is equally as false. The existence of a monarchy like that of Great Britain’s in the 21st century is, quite frankly, nothing more than the construction of an alternate reality. These Queens and Kings and Princes and Princesses fill pseudo-positions of power over a public that is increasingly interested in leaving their classist histories behind them. If they’d like us youths to keep letting them exist at all, it might be best to leave Peter Morgan and his screenwriting alone. At the very least, it’ll keep us interested.
Senior Arts Editor Zoe Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.